Creative writing class is far more draining than any class with the word "Creative" has the right to be. Here is my final short story assignment. Please, tear it apart. Seriously. Unless I can make it more interesting I am a goner. Jack and Jill By AJ Talon - - - - - - His feet hurt. His lungs burned. The air itself seemed to rob him of strength, so cold and dry and thin. Elim looked back up, unable to help it. The vast peak of the summit still lay ahead of him, snow capping the top. The abrupt change from forest to barren tundra was startling, making the whole mountain peak look like a blade cutting into the cloudless blue sky overhead. Elim winced at the stitch in his side. Better to not think of blades or anything sharp for that matter. Already it felt like a knife was twisting in his side, a throbbing pain that seemed to take a little more from him with every step. He adjusted his pack and looked ahead. Mitch was ahead of him, a tall Boy Scout whose long steady stride hadn’t broken from the moment they’d left the campsite. Envy slithered inside Elim’s heart at the tall, quiet boy’s strength and endurance, and his next breath was more of a hiss than any that had come before it. Mitch paused and looked over his shoulder. “You doing okay?” “Haa... Y-Yeah...” Elim managed to croak. He stopped on a rock and took hold of his canteen. He took a few sips, carefully saving it. He’d started out gulping before the scout leader had told him this would just make him run out of water faster, hence he’d committed himself to frugality. Mitch walked down the trail, worn smooth by countless boots. He stopped in front of Elim, stony faced. He always seemed to look that way, as though keeping his emotions contained within his head. “Mitch? Elim! Oh!” Both of them turned to look up higher the ridge they were on. A swarthy man with a Santa Claus beard and rounded belly to match tromped down, the bright colors of his scoutmaster uniform drawing the eyes immediately in the barren post-tree line summit area. His round face was friendly, and Elim found the strength to smile. “Mr. Ganges...” “I’m sorry about this, but uh... Well... If we don’t get moving faster, we won’t get back before sunset,” Ganges said. Elim nodded. “Sorry... I-I can move faster... I’m almost ready to-” “Yes, I know, go again,” the scoutmaster said. “But see... Everyone else is getting impatient.” “We can only go at the pace of our slowest member,” Mitch pointed out. Elim bowed his head. “I’m sorry,” he apologized again, the action a habit. “I can go faster if-” “You look like you’re about to pass out, and you’re still slowing us down,” the scoutmaster said. “So... I was thinking of something else.” Elim looked up at the scoutmaster. “What?” The scoutmaster’s smile never wavered. “Well, I was thinking we could leave...” He corrected himself. “We could let you rest on the side of the trail.” Elim felt himself stiffen. He continued to stare mutely at the scoutmaster. Ganges’ eyes darted to the side. “Well, we would just be…” “Leaving me?” Elim whispered. Ganges was silent. He looked over at Mitch. “We’ll never get up there before sunset like this,” Ganges said. “He’s got water right?” “Yes,” Mitch said. Ganges nodded as his smile became more cheerful. For a moment, Elim was reminded of a mall Santa he’d sat on the lap of years ago. He’d asked politely for a bicycle, and old Santa had kindly said he’d “look into it.” Well, come Christmas, no bicycle arrived. He hadn’t felt overly disappointed; there had been other toys to catch his attention but that vague sense of loss had remained for weeks after. “Elim? Elim, you’ll be okay. You’ll just stay here,” Ganges said. He extended a hand to rest on his shoulder. “I…” “After all, in this state you would never have made it up the mountain right?” Ganges said with a smile. Elim looked back down at his shoes, scuffed up and covered in faint stains of dirt but still in the same general shape they were when he bought them in eager anticipation of this trip. His fists clenched and unclenched, lacking the strength to stay firm any longer. He closed his eyes and nodded. Ganges’ meaty hand slapped his shoulder. “All right. Come on Mitch.” Elim’s eyes opened and he looked intently at Mitch. The older boy didn’t look at him, his eyes firmly ahead on the summit ahead. Elim followed his gaze and saw some of the other boys looking relieved. One even shot a smug look at him. Tears came to his eyes, hot and angry. He looked away sharply, feeling acute shame. He didn’t return the half-hearted goodbye from Ganges. - - - - - Elim had been told many times that the mountains were beautiful. A vast snow-kissed summit lay before him, only the tiniest smattering of green trees giving color to the vast stony juggernaut ahead of him. Even through tired tears he still saw the great mountain ahead, contrasted against the clear blue sky. Ahead of him, he could make out the colorful coats of the rest of the Boy Scout troop, plowing on up the trail. Tiny dots quickly leaving him behind. If this was beauty, then beauty was to be left behind. Beauty was to be regarded as a burden. Beauty was cold, and rough, and thin air and misery and shame. “‘Slowing us down’,” Elim muttered angrily through a sob. “‘Let you rest…’” He was disgusted with his weakness, made evident every time he took a breath. Up here, every gasp was a fight for air. His muscles screamed out as they desperately sought oxygen, but his lungs couldn’t provide enough. Impossible to reason with, the only means his body had of communicating its weakness was through pain. He wished it could take his mind off his humiliation, but the two emotions seemed to be in league, feeding off each other. The cold without and within added up to what felt like an overflowing blender, emotions churning inside him in pieces too big to process and therefore kept threatening to overturn him, spilling everything out. His current sobs were just the first leaks; soon it would be a deluge, every tear another reminder that he was too weak, too young, and too small to make it to the top. He could no longer look at the mountain. He could no longer look at anything. “Hey. Hey, you okay?” Elim blinked through his tears, and looked up. The glare from the sunlight reflected off the mountain receded as a cloud passed overhead, enough to allow him painless sight. Standing before him was a gray-haired woman in hiking boots, jeans, and a green vest. Said vest caught his attention the most, given the colorful patches and badges decorating it. Her eyes were bright in the shadow of her hat, and her face was wrinkled from smiles rather than age. “You okay?” She repeated. “I...” He didn’t know how to respond to her question. “Are you okay?” She moved forward and rested her hands on his shoulders. A dark skinned girl with a matching green vest peeked over her shoulder, looking at him in curiosity. Elim shut his eyes tightly. If his cheeks were not already red from the sun and the windburn he would have been blushing as she was very pretty. A girl like her, seeing him like this… “No,” he admitted quietly. “I… I’m waiting for my troop.” “Your troop?” She asked. Elim nodded. The Girl Scout leader frowned under her wide brimmed hat. “So you’re just going to sit here then?” “I… I wouldn’t have made it up the mountain anyway…” He said. The Girl Scout leader laughed softly. It got Elim’s eyes open and up on her face. “What’s so funny?” Indignation shaped his face. “I just think it’s a shame, that’s all,” she said. “The mountain isn’t nearly as pretty from here.” “I don’t want to see the mountain,” Elim said. “Are you sure? It looks a lot better up there.” “I can’t make it.” “Did they tell you that?” She asked softly. Elim looked away, focusing on a nearby tree. It was twisted and gnarled, blown over by numerous winds and probably weighed down by snow over the course of its life. The Girl Scout Leader tapped his shoulders, and his eyes returned to her. “Come on. Don’t you want to go?” Elim sighed and shook his head. “No… No…” “Sure?” The Girl Scout leader asked. She smiled. “Sitting here can’t be too comfortable.” She pulled him up to her feet and hugged him tightly. Elim wasn’t sure if he was more surprised he accepted it, or more surprised he returned it. “Come on… Come on, it’ll be all right,” she said. Elim held her back tightly, deep breaths filling his lungs desperately. He sniffled. “Now, come on… Let’s start again,” she said. “Right where you left off.” She let go of Elim and the loss of support made him realize just how much his feet hurt and how sore his muscles were. It was like he was made of hammered lead, struggling to stay up. “Come on… One step at a time.” The pretty girl moved aside, watching with some interest. Elim felt her gaze, took a deep breath, and put a foot forward onto the next stone. The Girl Scout Leader seemed pleased. “See? Not so hard at all. Let’s go, come on.” Step by step, his strange guardian angels observed and encouraged him up the trail. The girl never said a word while the scout leader seemed to have an endless stream of conversation. Elim found himself more and more annoyed, which seemed to take his mind off the aches and pains throughout his body. “I need a break,” he announced. The Scout Leader looked at him, a touch of exasperation in her eyes. “It hasn’t been that long. We won’t want to be caught on this mountain after dark, we’ll never get back down.” “I can’t keep going,” Elim said. “I need a break.” Even his bones seemed to be screaming. The Scout Leader smiled gently. “Where?” Elim looked around. His trudging had restricted his vision to the trail in front of him. Looking out at his surroundings, he thought, would just depress him. He was right. “Past the tree line, there’s nothing to rest on but rocks,” the Scout Leader said. “I… I don’t care. I need to rest.” “It’ll just hurt worse if you sit down,” she said. “You need to keep going. If you don’t keep going we’ll-“ “I can just turn back then!” Elim finally gasped in total exasperation. “Why do you care, anyway?” The Scout Leader hummed. “Well… You’re on a mountain for a reason, aren’t you?” She was still smiling, not a trace of tension in her body language. This infuriated Elim, his fatigue and his pain all seeming to come together into anger. “I came here! I didn’t want to come! I didn’t want to-I want to go down! I don’t want to go!” He wanted to yell but all he could do was hiss and growl. “You want me to keep going on why? Why? It’s just… I don’t need to go any further! I don’t want to go! I DON’T WANT TO GO!” He thought he was too dehydrated to cry any more tears, but they came out anyway blurring his vision. The Scout Leader just became a strange mass in his vision, moving to hug him again. He sobbed softly into her shoulder, weakly clutching at her vest. “It’s okay… It’s okay… Look. If it helps, I didn’t stop us,” the Scout Leader said. Elim sniffled and looked at her. “H-Huh?” He looked over at the pretty girl. He wiped his eyes and really looked at her. She looked aside. Red stained her cheeks from the sun, and her feet wobbled in her boots. She was having trouble standing herself. She slowly looked back at him. He had heard the eyes were the window to the soul, but he couldn’t see anything mystical in the dark brown pupils. No hidden insight. He could just see the tiredness around her eyes and the streaks of tears on her cheeks. She looked away again, down at her boots. New boots. “She wants to go to the top,” the Scout Leader said with a smile. “You don’t have to come but…” “… Just… Give me a minute,” Elim said quietly. The hug lasted a while longer. “… You aren’t just holding me to keep resting, are you?” The scout leader asked. “… It is past tree line…” - - - - - - - - They resumed hiking up the mountain with Elim in front of the other two. He glanced back at the girl. She was silent as ever. He would ask, but the Scout Leader stayed between them the whole way. The girl still offered no news. The shadows grew longer as the light slipped into the deeper end of the light spectrum, painting the mountains surrounding them in orange, red and purple shades. The sun continued to peek out to the west but was low enough that it could be looked at directly whenever Elim spared a glance. False summits came and went as they ascended, each one grayer than the last. Snow clung in patches, but the ice frosted splendor seen from the base was not the true face of the mountain. The boulders that had made up the mountain were gone. Only pebbles and dust crunched softly underneath their boots as each step took them higher and higher. Elim craned his neck to force his eyes up, wondering if the brown and gray hill above them was really, truly it. “Okay… Just a little further, both of you,” the scout leader said, her voice winded. Finally the lady had shown some signs of humanity other than compassion. Elim didn’t know if that made him feel better. Or if anything would make him feel better. “Haa…” He closed his eyes. “Ha… If I turned back now…” “Don’t even think about it.” Elim looked back at the girl. She was looking away again. The Scout Leader was just smiling. Back his eyes went to the trail ahead. “Just a joke,” he whispered. Step by step. Boot in front of boot. Up higher and higher, the wind whistling softly in his ears. He closed his eyes for the final few steps, imagining he was sleepwalking. He felt like he was doing just that, given how exhausted he was. An unpleasant dream was his existence from now one. The ground beneath his feet stopped sloping. It felt flat and firm. He opened his eyes. With his head down, he could only see the packed dirt that comprised the top of the peak. It was a surface area only a little wider than his room back home, with a pile of rocks with colorful ribbons tied around them to mark it as something different from the rest of the desolate peak. He looked up higher, took a clumsy step forward to the edge of the summit. His breath caught in his throat as he looked. The mountain range went forever, in all directions. Valleys and rivers snaked through like great winding serpents, forming the divisions between high and lowland. Green turned to black in the fading light of the sun, and every massive black shadow hid something deep and ancient and mysterious in the valleys laid before him. Without a cloud in the sky, the earth was shrouded in the purples and oranges of the setting sky. It was something alien, something he had imagined and seen in photographs but below him was proof that the real thing held something greater that what could be contained by a screen or a picture frame. A small hand took his. He looked down at it, and looked up at the girl. The girl smiled softly. “I… Um…” Elim looked out back to the mountains below. “Thank you.” “Thank you,” she said back. Elim wiped his eyes and looked back into hers. It changed nothing though. The mountains and the sky and the tears were all mirrored there in perfect reflection of his own. - - - - - - Have at it, gentlemen.